Monthly Archives: July 2012

When is it play?

Last week, our [Mostly] Wordless Wednesday post caused quite a bit of discussion both in the comments section and on Facebook.

The dog featured showed a variety of body language signals that left many people questioning his intent. Was Jackson playing? Or was something more serious going on?

To be fair, it can be difficult to know a dog’s intent from a still photograph. A video would have given us much more information. Did Jackson spring away, toy in mouth and tail wagging after the picture was snapped? Or did he freeze over the toy, stiff and unmoving?

Regardless, we can gather quite a bit of useful information from the picture. In the moment of time during which the picture was taken, Jackson was showing signs of both resource guarding and high arousal, which would indicate that anyone interacting with him would need to take care. We know that arousal can sometimes tip into aggression, and coupled with multiple signs of guarding, we would need to be doubly careful not to push him past his threshold.

Let’s look at the body language signals that Jackson was presenting one at a time:

1. Working from the back forward, Jackson’s tail is held stiffly over his back. If we were watching a video, the tail may or may not be wagging. A dog’s tail raises with increased confidence and arousal. A tail held this high (Jackson’s usual tail set was level with or slightly below the line of his back) tells us that the dog is very excited.

2. Contrary to popular belief, raised hackles do not always mean that a dog is in an aggressive state. Piloerection (where the hair on the dog’s back stands straight up) can also occur any time the dog is emotionally excited, including when a dog is fearful or anxious. However, Jackson’s raised hackles are another warning sign that he is highly aroused.

3. Much like his tail, Jackson’s ears are held as straight and erect as possible. They are rotated towards the camera, and show that he is very aware of the person standing there.

4. A furrowed, tense brow like this indicates that Jackson is concerned and is holding his muscles tight.

5. If there were any doubt about Jackson’s intentions, his eyes put these to rest. Not only are they hard and staring directly at the camera, but he is also exhibiting whale eye. Were his actions playful, we would expect Jackson’s eyes to be softer and should not see any whale eye. If your dog’s eyes ever look like this when he or she is “playing,” stop. No dog looks this hard during play, and this is a serious warning that you should seek professional help from a certified professional dog trainer immediately.

6. A lowered body posture in which the dog’s front end is crouched down while his rear remains in the air can be a playbow, but it can also be a sign of guarding. Dogs will lower themselves over valued resources. The difference? Look at how tense the dog’s muscles are, and at what the rest of his body is doing. Play bows should look quite loose and relaxed, with soft body language. A guarding dog will display opposite signs, with tense and hard signals.

7. Jackson’s toes are dug into the ground, ready to give him better traction for an upward spring (either at the camera or away) if necessary.

8. A playful dog will often have an open-mouthed smile known as a “play face.” Jackson’s mouth is closed tightly, and the commissure of his lips is pushed forwards.

Taken together, we can see that Jackson is concerned about guarding his toy and is no longer feeling playful. This doesn’t make him a bad dog (in fact, he was a quite friendly and affectionate dog the majority of the time), but it does make him a dog who needs to be handled carefully. Being a young dog, Jackson may be conflicted and could switch back and forth between highly aroused play and resource guarding quickly, which is exactly what was happening when this picture was snapped.

How would you respond to Jackson to neutralize this situation and reduce his guarding tendencies? Please share your training strategies in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Canine body language quiz: what’s going on with this dog? How would you respond to his body language signals?

Calming Aids: Dog Appeasing Pheromone

We’ve written about the importance of recognizing your dog’s stress level and how to institute a cortisol vacation for chronically stressed dogs. However, lifelong avoidance is neither practical nor helpful. So, what are some things you can do to lower your dog’s overall stress level?

Today we’ll begin discussing some helpful calming aids that may make a difference in your dog’s ability to relax. Understand that these tools are simply that, tools, and will not fix any behavior problems in and of themselves. Training and behavior modification are still necessary, but may be more effective when paired with these remedies. Remember that every dog is different, and what helps one dog may not work for another.

One of the most innocuous calming remedies available is Dog Appeasing Pheromone, or Comfort Zone, a synthetic version of a pheromone released by mother dogs when puppies are nursing. Pheromones are chemicals that influence one’s emotional state, and are processed through the olfactory lobe. D.A.P. appears to help comfort and reassure some dogs.

One thing that I like about the company is the fact that their product has been studied in clinical trials. Many over-the-counter calming remedies have no scientific evidence as to their efficacy, and are in truth the canine equivalent of snake oil. D.A.P. has been found to reduce barking and increase resting behavior in shelter dogs, promote relaxed behaviors during vet exams, and reduce signs of thunderstorm phobia, among other things.  More research into the product is needed before we can say with complete certainty that it does what the company claims, but anecdotal evidence seems to support these claims.

Several forms are available, including a collar, spray, and diffuser. I recommend the diffuser for most of my clients. Many clients report little to no observable change when they begin using D.A.P., but then report that when the diffuser runs out they realize that it has indeed made a difference. There are no reported side effects to this remedy: it either helps, or it doesn’t, but it’s not going to hurt anything to try. The diffuser covers a 650-square-foot area and usually lasts about four weeks. I use one for my own dogs when introducing a new foster into my home, and believe it to be helpful.

As with any successful product, there are now several knock-off versions of D.A.P. available on the market. In general, clients have not reported success with these products, and at this time I recommend sticking with the name brand.

Have you tried Comfort Zone with your dog(s)? What did you think? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Decoding Dogs

Paws Abilities Dog Training and
Minnesota School of Business present:

Decoding Dogs
Canine Body Language, Fear, and Aggression

Learn canine body language, and how to talk to dogs so that they can understand you!

presented by Sara Reusche, CVT, CPDT-KA
Friday, July 13th (today!) from 3-5pm
at the Minnesota School of Business

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Trainers, groomers, rescue personnel, doggy daycare attendants, and veterinary technicians are often called upon to handle difficult dogs in high-stress environments. This can not only create lifelong behavioral/handling issues in dogs, but can also put you at risk for bites.

This interesting interactive presentation will include lots of photo and video examples of canine body language, and plenty of opportunities to practice the art of “reading” dogs. You will learn:

* Common stress signals that every dog uses.
* How to calm a nervous dog using his own language.
* Why not all wagging tails are friendly.
* When is growling a good thing?
* Working with difficult dogs in a clinical setting.
* Defensive handling for safety and stress reduction.

2 CEUs approved for CVTs and CCPDTs.
Cost: $15 ($10 discount for current MSB students and faculty)

Want to attend? RSVP on the Facebook event page!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Canine Body Language quiz:

Below are two pictures of the same dog, taken within a few weeks of each other. Which picture is she more relaxed in? Happier? Is she stressed in either picture? How can you tell? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Cortisol Vacation

We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?

Photo by Liama Hal

The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.

Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.

For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.

Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.

Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.

While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.

The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Lulu Hoeller

Happy Independence Day to our American readers! Please, please, please keep your dog safely inside today and make sure he is wearing a collar with current ID.


Shelter workers and Animal Control Officers everywhere

Chronic Stress in Dogs

Just like people, most dogs have both a variety of coping strategies and a relatively normal nervous system. These things allow them to deal with the many small stresses of day-to-day life, as well as occasional larger stressors.

However, also like people, not every dog deals with stress the same way, and some may struggle more than others. Whether due to chemical issues in the brain (such as a deficit or inbalance of certain neurotransmitters contributing to an anxiety disorder), the absence of a supportive environment in which to learn adequate coping strategies, or a personality that just doesn’t mesh with the lifestyle of their owners, some dogs simply aren’t equipped to deal with the life they lead.

Photo by Derek Ortiz

It’s a sad state of affairs when a dog suffers from chronic stress, and as we mentioned before it can also be dangerous. Chronic stress is hard on the entire body.  It can hasten the aging process, delay wound healing, contribute to depression or anxiety, decrease cognitive function, and increase the risk of illness from bacteria or viruses. Many chronically stressed dogs suffer from immune issues such as allergies or gastrointestinal problems. This is serious stuff.

Remember that stressors cause a chain of physical reactions in the body, which lead to heightened levels of stress hormones. While the first jolt of adrenaline released during a stressful event will begin to subside within the first fifteen minutes or so, the glucocorticoids that follow may take two to six days to return to baseline levels provided no other stressors follow during that time period.

At some point, a stressed dog is likely to reach his or her threshold. The threshold is the point at which the dog shows obvious signs of stress (whether by stressing up or down). Dogs have various thresholds – points at which they exhibit stress, points at which they may act out, even points at which they snap or bite.

Let’s say that your dog has a stressful event (perhaps a frightening thunderstorm or a really intense play session with the neighbor’s new dog). His stress level will spike, and you may see some signs of this in his inability to settle easily. If he has plenty of time to recover from that event, he’ll return to normal with no real concerns. This is what’s happening in the graph below.

In an ideal world, we would always give our dogs plenty of time to recover after events that pushed them over their threshold (and caused visible stress responses). However, this isn’t an ideal world, and sometimes stressors will stack up, coming in quick succession without time in between for the dog to recover. This happens in our lives too, sometimes, and provided we can acknowledge that this is happening and work to move beyond it, it’s not typically a big deal.

For some dogs, however, this becomes very important because they are never able to recover. Stressors continue stacking, so that the dog winds up beyond their threshold constantly. I often see this with the fearful or reactive dogs I work with. These dogs are chronically stressed, set off by every little things and constantly on edge. Their charts might look more like this:

Later this week, we’ll discuss how to help a dog who’s gotten stuck past his or her threshold. What sort of things cause a visible stress reaction in your dog, and how have you helped your pup to develop coping skills? Please share your stories in the comments below!